When Beginning a New Book

When it is time to begin a book, when the blank pages are waiting and the fountain pens have been filled, I recommend you make the barest of plans you can, just enough to aim at what you are setting out to do. Too little direction and you might miss Medicine Bow. Too much planning and you can talk yourself out of turning into the little unmarked road that leads to the left, along which may be the moment the whole journey will end up being about.

It helps to make a list of the stories you want to tell and events you want to describe or the things you want to say. I find it is better to make a list rather than an outline. A list makes me feel as though I am writing a book rather than taking a correspondence course.

I think it wise to leave enough room to ramble around between stops to see what is there to be discovered. Or perhaps to sit in a square and watch people go by. It will not hurt to drive down a long road and have to turn around.

I like to have enough of a plan to know when one might be well advised to turn west into the sunset or stop for the night. But I also need to give myself the freedom to add a chapter or throw one away, to add a story or save it for another day.

A writer can dutifully follow a well-reasoned outline and end up missing the point. A writer can complete the assignment she set for herself and still not write the work she meant to write.

– Robert Benson “Dancing on the Head of a Pen”
12/29/17

The Gift of Great Literature – by Sarah Arthur

Many of us, when charting the timeline of our lives, can point to a moment when a story or poem happened. It happened the way an accident or a record-breaking snowfall happened: it was perhaps expected, perhaps not. One moment we were performing the usual routine—pouring cereal, say, or opening the mail—and the next moment we sat motionless with a book in our hands, eyes unfocused, a wave of words washing over us as relentlessly as a newsreel. When we look back and narrate our life, we will remember precisely where we were sitting, what we were wearing, the way the eaves dripped in the fog. Ever after, when we hear dripping eaves, we will remember. The story, the poem, will come back to us like the voice of long-dead grandfather, sharply, as if there has been no time or distance in between. It doesn’t matter who wrote it, or why. What matters is that it changed us.

That is the gift of great literature, a gift that comes to us even at Christmas when so much good art is effortlessly shoved aside in favor of the flashy, the cheap, the temporal. Finding the timeless literature of novelists and poets such as Christiana Rossetti, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Kathleen Norris, Oscar Hijuelos, and Li-Young Lee—people of faith whose works you may never see in a “Christian” bookstore—is like lighting one candle after another. Flame upon flame, light upon light, until the hallowed sanctuary of our quiet devotion becomes something of a shrine.

Winter in the Northern Hemisphere is particularly suited for such encounters and likewise suited to prayer and reflection. We find ourselves more and more indoors, ever in shadow, our bodies slowing to the rhythm of the sleeping woodlands. Silence is not hard to find. And yet crashing into the midwinter quiet comes the most frantic event of the cultural year. Perhaps it is our fear of stillness, of quiet, that drives us to anything but the “silent night” of Christmas: we do not want to know what we might discover in reflection. More likely, it is a consumer economy that thrives on a relentless pace: slow and contemplative people are not shopping people; silence does not sell.

So, the one time of year that we are given to pause and seek the One who seeks us becomes the one time of year that drives us nearly to self-extinction. And, it is this season, of any, when we are least likely to pick up a book and read. Who has time for that? But it is a Word that has come to us, and words that tell the story of that Word from generation to generation. We risk, in our time, losing the words that truly have meaning, the stories and works of substance. What has been said before is said again, in ever more sentimental or sensational fashion—and set to pop music besides, which over time makes us immune.

As I write early on this December morning, snow lies deep in my garden. Night retreats westward; stars slowly start to fade. Two small boys sleep across the hall, resting in the grace-filled inertia of the very young. Many, many things must be done today, not only to sustain a household but also to navigate the cultural expectations surrounding the coming holidays. But I will choose—if you do—to sit. I will choose to breathe in the words of others. Here in the dark, I will seek points of light that cannot be extinguished, no matter how frenetic the world.

Excerpted and adapted from Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany (Paraclete Press, 2014), by Sarah Arthur.

The Sharing of the Crowd

Harnessing the sharing of the crowd will often take you further than you think, and it is almost always the best place to start.
We have barely begun to explore what kinds of amazing things a crowd can do. There must be two million different ways to crowdfund an idea, or to crowdorganize it, or to crowdmake it. There must be a million more new ways to share unexpected things in unexpected ways.

In the next three decades the greatest wealth – and more interesting cultural innovations – lie in this direction. The largest, fastest growing, most profitable companies in 2050 will be companies that will have figured out how to harness aspects of sharing that are invisible and un appreciated today. Anything that can be shared – thoughts, emotions, money, health, time – will be shared in the right conditions, with the right benefits. Anything that can be shared can be shared better, faster, easier, longer, and in a million more ways than we currently realize. At the point in our history, sharing something that has not been shared before, or in a new way, is the surest way to increase its value.

– from “The Inevitable” By Kevin Kelly

Taking One’s Time

One of my writing heroes is James Taylor, though our arts are different. He can carry a tune, for one thing.

“Sometimes a song will be finished for a deadline in the studio the day the thing is cast in stone forever,” he once said, talking about the art of crafting pop songs. “I know that songs and arrangements evolve and develop over time,” he went on, “that somewhere around the twentieth time it’s played for a live audience, a song finally completes itself.”

His art and the art I make are different, no doubt. If I learned nothing else from this fellow traveler with whom I have journeyed down different roads all my life, I learned this: if it takes twenty passes for a lyric of a few dozen words to grow into itself, then taking one’s time with twenty or thirty or forty thousand of them is probably not a waste of time.

– Robert Benson “Dancing on the Head of a Pen”

A Sense of Place

A haunting sense of place should ripple off any good memoir once the cover’s closed, and you may reopen the front again as you would a gate to another land. Anybody with crisp recall can get half decent at describing stuff with practice. Hilary Mantel explains her own confidence in her memoirs as growing from their vivid physicality: “Though me early memories are patchy, I think they are not, or not entirely confabulation, and I believe this because of their overwhelming sensory power, they come complete, not like the groping, generalized formulation of the subjects fooled by the photograph. As I say ‘I tasted,’ I taste, and as I say ‘I heard,’ I hear; I am not talking about a Proustian moment, but a Proustian cine-film.”

As they do for Mantel, the sharpest memories often give me the spooky sense of looking out from former eyeholes at a landscape decades-since gone. The old self comes back, the former face. When that transformation happens inside me, it’s almost like I only have to set down what I see.

– Mary Karr “The Art of Memoir”

“Nothing Really Happens Until I Write”

Artists have long spoken of “the Muse,” inspiration personified. According to Webster’s, the Muse was “any of the nine sister goddesses in Greek mythology presiding over song and poetry and the arts and sciences.” Well, you are not at the mercy of the Muse. Repeat this statement to yourself until you believe it. You are not an artist who is unable to work until Miss Muse appears with her charms. You are not an empty vessel waiting to be filled or an instrument in God’s hand waiting for the hand to do something.

You are a participant. Even when God performed miracles out in the Old Testament wilderness, God required that some human being do something, such as talk to a stubborn pharaoh or pick up a staff and start walking. Even when we are waiting for further instruction or for an idea to form more clearly, we are active in some way. Creative work requires that we do something, and keep doing it. It’s the doing that brings the results.

As a writer I know that nothing really happens until I write. Now I may write for hours or days before what I write turns into anything meaningful. But I have to write for all those hours in order to arrive at the hour in which the “inspired” writing happens.

– from “The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life” by Vinita Hampton Wright Loyola Press

Sample Chapters in a Book Proposal

– by Angela Scheff

When putting together a nonfiction proposal, it’s important to have sample writing, but not your entire manuscript–unless specifically requested [see here for the reason]. So how many chapters should you include?
A good rule to follow is to include the introduction along with chapter one and two. That said, there are often reasons to deviate from this.

I often guide authors to submit a good sampling of what their actual manuscript will look like. For example, if you spend the first section discussing history or research in your manuscript, then also include another chapter or two from the middle of your manuscript so agents/editors can evaluate your writing from your other sections as your tone and subject matter will be different.
If your chapters are on the shorter side, you may want to include more so agents/editors can view more of your writing instead of just a few pages.

A few things to keep in mind:

• Your proposal as a whole (including sample chapters) should not be more than 50 pages or you run the risk of the entire thing not being reviewed.

• Your sample chapters should showcase your book, so pick the introduction (your proposal overview introduces the book to the agents/editors; your introduction introduces it to your readers) as well as the ones that best represent your concept and writing.

• Your sample chapters should be long enough for authors/editors to experience your writing. If you’re unsure and your proposal is under 50 pages, include another chapter.

• Have a few additional chapters completed that are not included in your proposal in case you receive a request for more.

• While you don’t have to have your entire manuscript written yet, you must know how your book will be laid out [see here for why].
Bonus tip: have your proposal reviewed by a few peers before you formally submit to an agent. Do they want to read more? It’s important to lay out your book so reviewers understand the entire concept and then leave them wanting more.

Accessing vs. Possessing

A reporter for TechCrunch recently observed, “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provide, owns no real esate. Something interesting is happening.”

Indeed, digital media exhibits a similar absence. Netflix, the world’s largest video hub, allows me to watch a movie without owning it. Spotify, the largest music streaming company, lets me listen to whatever music I want without owning any of it. Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited enables me to read any book in its 800,000 volume library without owning books, and PlayStation Now lets me play games without purchasing them. Every day I own less of what I use.

Possession is not as important as it once was. Accessing is more important that ever.

– from “The Inevitable” by Kevin Kelly

“Creative” Writing – by Frederick Buechner

The following meditation is from a talk on the occasion of the presentation of the Whiting Writers’ awards:

SOMETIME IN THE early 1950s, for two years running, I taught creative writing at the summer session of the Washington Square branch of N.Y.U. . . . I was uneasy about teaching creative writing for a number of reasons, one of which was that I’ve never been sure that it is something that can really be taught—for better or worse, I don’t think anybody ever taught it to me anyway—and another that I had absolutely no idea how to teach it right if it was. But my main uneasiness came from somewhere else. Suppose, I thought, that by some fluke I did teach it at least right enough so that maybe a couple of people, say, learned how to write with some real measure of effectiveness and power. The question then became for me what were they going to write effectively and powerfully about? Suppose they chose to write effective and powerful racist tracts or sadistic pornography or novels about warped and unpleasant people doing warped and unpleasant things? Or, speaking less sensationally, suppose they used the skills I had somehow managed to teach them to write books simply for the sake of making a name for themselves, or making money, or making a stir. It seemed to me and still does that to teach people how to write well without knowing what they are going to write about is like teaching people how to shoot well without knowing what or whom they are going to shoot at.

– Originally published in The Clown in the Belfry

The Flashback Structure

In terms of basic book shape, I’ve used the same approach in all three of mine: I start with a flash forward that shows what’s at stake emotionally for me over the course of a book, then tell the story in straightforward, linear time.

I wouldn’t suggest that shape for everybody, but I would say you have to start out setting emotional stakes – why the enterprise is a passionate one for you, what’s at risk – early on. That’s why the flashback structure, which I borrowed from Conroy and Crews (among thousands of other story tellers), is a time-honored one. It’s sitting on the coffin, telling the tale of a death – or rebirth, in my case.

– Mary Karr “The Art of Memoir”

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